RIVERRUN HOSTS CELEBRITY EVENT WITH SPECIAL GUEST MILLIE PERKINS
The RiverRun International Film Festival will inaugurate a series of special screenings called “RiverRun Retro,” and the first event takes place this Friday at Hanesbrands Theatre in Winston-Salem.
The self-explanatory “RiverRun Retro: An Evening with Millie Perkins” will feature special guest Millie Perkins, the acclaimed actress who made her screen debut in George Stevens’ classic 1959 screen adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank. The program will show clips of her subsequent film and television work but concentrate on The Diary of Anne Frank, which earned eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, and won three: Best Supporting Actress (Shelley Winters), Best Cinematography (black-and-white), and Best Art Direction/Set Decoration (black-and-white).
The conversation will be moderated by Foster Hirsch, a film professor at Brooklyn College and the author of 16 books on film and theater, including The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir, A Method to Their Madness: The History of the Actor’s Studio, and Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King. He’s also hosted programs for the American Film Institute (AFI), the American Cinematheque, Film Forum, and numerous film festivals.
“Our plan is that RiverRun Retro will be a year-round initiative spotlighting individuals and films which have contributed to the cultural and commercial fabric of motion pictures,” says Rob Davis, executive director of RiverRun. “By bringing in special guests to discuss their careers, RiverRun will pay tribute to those who have influenced the medium and audiences will be exposed to the fascinating history and back-story of the art form as a supplement to the annual festival. I did similar programs at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) and for the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, and they were quite popular.
“With film, as with other art forms and industries, to understand where we are and where we may be headed, we need to understand where we have been.”
Over half a century later, Perkins’ memories of The Diary of Anne Frank are vivid. The book had been an international best-seller, and the 1955 stage adaptation, written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (who subsequently scripted the film), won both the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Stevens, so moved by his wartime experiences shooting documentaries about D-Day, the liberation of Paris and the Dachau concentration camp, was determined to make the film version. The casting of Anne Frank was one of the largest, most publicized casting calls in history at the time. Perkins, then a top teenage model, had no aspirations toward acting.
“I had never seen the play or read the diary,” she says. “I never thought about being an actress. George Stevens found me in Paris and asked me to come and test for the part.”
Perkins was indifferent to the idea, until she realized that Stevens had directed A Place in the Sun (1951), the acclaimed film based on Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy – which had been one of her favorite novels. If nothing else, she’d at least like to meet the man who made the movie she so admired.
“I cried all the way back to New York,” she laughs, but en route to Los Angeles she read The Diary of Anne Frank and “I understood. It hit me right in the heart. I knew exactly who she was. I could completely identify with her.”
Then there was Stevens.
“He was lovely to me,” she recalls. “He was a very stern man, a very sincere, honest man. He told me how very important it was for me to make this movie. I think it was George Stevens who decided I was the one to do it. He knew I could do it.”
Even when, during filming, Perkins was lonely and depressed, it was Stevens who talked her through it, emphasizing the importance of what they were doing and what she was doing.
“I didn’t know Hollywood,” she says. “It was so different from anything I’d ever experienced.”
The cast included Joseph Schildkraut (Otto Frank), Gusti Huber (Edith Frank) and Lou Jacobi (Hans van Daan), reprising their stage roles, as well as Winters (Petronella van Daan), Ed Wynn (Albert Dussell), Dody Heath (Miep), Douglas Spencer (Kraler), and fellow newcomers Diane Baker (Margot Frank) and Richard Beymer (Peter van Daan).
Given their ages, Perkins immediately bonded with Baker (who was younger but played her older sister) and Beymer, and her friendship with both lasts to this day. “Gusti Huber was very protective, Lou Jacobi was divine, and Ed Wynn was divine. When he’d come onto the set in the mornings, it was like he brought sunshine with him.
“Shelley Winters was a very demanding actress, and Joseph Schildkraut was very competitive – mostly with Shelley, it seemed.”
Nevertheless, given the triumphant outcome, Perkins has no hesitation in praising both. “I didn’t judge people – and I still don’t, really,” she observes. “I understood their egos. Shelley was a character – and I enjoyed it. All had a larger-than-life persona, all of them.”
(Besides, she and Beymer would occasionally indulge in pranking Schildkraut, who assumed Winters was the culprit!)
Looking back on the film, which she has seen many times since its release, “I think the film holds up great and I think I hold up great, frankly,” she laughs. “There’s nothing I would change.”
Years later, she learned that Otto Frank had written her a letter, praising her performance and saying she captured the soul and spirit of his daughter. She cherishes her copy of that letter.
After The Diary of Anne Frank, Perkins appeared opposite the one and only Elvis Presley in Wild in the Country (1961). “I really liked Elvis a lot as a person. Elvis really treated me as if I were a good, proper human being. He was like a lovable little puppy dog.”
Years later, she would play Elvis’ mother Gladys Presley in a 1990 TV series, with Michael St. Gerard as a young, pre-stardom Elvis.
“Gladys got a bad rap,” she states. “She became an alcoholic and an unhappy human being when Elvis became a star. She knew it would destroy him – and she was right. Before she died, she predicted that Elvis would be dead by 40, and she was only off by a couple of years.
“Everything comes full circle,” she says. “It’s a funny world.”
Perkins’ days as a screen ingenue were brief. After marrying writer Robert Thom – with whom she collaborated on such cult favorites as Wild in the Streets (1968) and The Witch Who Came from the Sea (1976) – she started a family, raising two daughters. Much of her subsequent work was in character roles, but it didn’t faze her.
She made four films with director Monte Hellman, including the cult Westerns The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind (both 1966), alternated between TV, including stints on “Knots Landing,” “Any Day Now” and “The Young and the Restless,” and feature films including Table for Five (1983), At Close Range (1986) and The Chamber (1995). In 1987, she played Martin Sheen’s wife and Charlie Sheen’s mother in Wall Street (1987), with Michael Douglas winning the Best Actor Oscar under the direction of Oliver Stone.
Of Stone, “I liked him. I respected him. There was no nonsense with him. You couldn’t get one over on him. I guess he liked what I did because he didn’t say anything to the contrary.”
Following the event, there will be a reception with Perkins, featuring light hors d’oeuvres from Mooney’s Mediterranean Cafe, beer from Hoots Beer Co., and wine from McRitchie Winery.
If her first screen role is the one she is best remembered for, Millie Perkins is both humbled and pleased. “For years, I have gone all over the world for screenings, and it doesn’t end. It’s an important movie – still.”
Want to go …? “RiverRun Retro: An Evening with Millie Perkins” will take place Friday at Hanesbrands Theatre, 209 N. Spruce St., Winston-Salem. Doors open at 7 pm. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for children and students (with valid ID). For advance tickets or more information, see: http://www.rhodesartscenter.org/an-evening-with-millie-perkins/. For more information about the RiverRun International Film Festival, call 336.724.1502 or visit the official website: http://riverrunfilm.com/.